Cuban cooking utilizes a variety of spices: the woody and slightly bitter bay leaves are used in black bean recipes, while the buttery and nutty garlic is a key ingredient of sauces like mojo. Oregano’s woody, minty, and camphoraceous flavor pairs well with meat dishes.
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What are 11 traditional Cuban spices?
Cuban food is a vibrant reflection of the island country’s rich culture and heritage. It’s a mix of Caribbean, Spanish, and African flavors.
Cubans use a wide range of spices that give their recipes — from the iconic Cuban black beans and rice to classic Cuban sandwiches — distinctive flavor, depth, and color:
- Bay leaf
- Bell pepper
- Black pepper
- Olive oil
|Annatto||Peppery, earthy, and nutty flavor profile|
|Bay leaf||Woody and slightly bitter taste|
|Bell pepper||Mild and sweet flavor|
|Black pepper||Woody and piney taste|
|Cayenne||Pepper flavor and fruity undertones, moderately hot|
|Coriander||Citrusy and flora punch, ground is nutty|
|Cumin||Intense flavor and warmth|
|Garlic||Sweet, buttery, and nutty flavor|
|Onion||Sweet and mild|
|Oregano||Intense woody, minty, and camphoraceous|
|Olive oil||Used for grilling|
Also known as achiote in Latin America, these orange-red seeds have a peppery, earthy, and nutty flavor profile — and come with a floral aroma.
It’s a natural food coloring that pairs well with rice and spices like bay leaves.
2. Bay leaf
The leaves of the bay laurel tree are a popular Cuban spice. Commonly used in braises with a long total preparation time, bay leaves deliver a woody and slightly bitter taste to recipes.
They add an herbal scent similar to thyme and oregano.
3. Bell pepper
These colorful peppers generally have a mild and sweet flavor, but it ultimately depends on what bell pepper you use.
Red ones are the sweetest, while orange ones are less flavorful. Green bell peppers deliver hints of bitterness and a grassy taste.
4. Black pepper
Black pepper has an easy-to-distinguish woody and piney taste. The heat complements the sharp flavor and aroma of a broad range of dishes.
Unlike other chilies, cayenne doesn’t have an earthy and smoky flavor. Instead, the moderately hot chili pepper incorporates a pepper flavor and fruity undertones into a dish.
Also referred to as cilantro, whole coriander leaves pack a citrusy and flora punch to culinary pieces. Its ground form has a nutty aroma.
This spice goes well with other spices in a Cuban pantry, including cumin and garlic.
Cumin is the spice that adds intense flavor and warmth to your dish and has earthy, nutty, and peppery hints.
Especially when crushed, cumin’s earthy aroma is unmistakable.
Raw garlic is an essential spice in Cuban cuisine with both a pungent taste and aroma. It becomes a source of sweet, buttery, and nutty flavor once cooked. It also contains some hints of saltiness and bitterness.
Cubans typically use this resh than dried and powdered.
Onion’s flavor is sweet and mild. White onions have a softer and less mild flavor than their yellow counterparts. On the other hand, red onions are spicier.
This aromatic herb is available as fresh and dried oregano (either whole leaves or ground). It has an intense woody, minty, and camphoraceous combination of flavors.
11. Olive Oil
This is not technically a spice, but its role in Cuban cooking makes it worthy of being included in this list. Olive oil is a key ingredient in many Cuban dining staples, such as mojo and picadillo.
Alongside onions, garlic, pepper, bay leaf tomato, cilantro, and oregano, it’s used to make sofrito sauce. Plus, it’s an ideal cooking oil for grilling.
What are the 3 most popular spices in Cuban cooking?
If you want to add Cuban flare to your cooking, these are the most common spices to use:
- Bay leaf
The bay leaf comes from the bay laurel tree (Lauris nobilis), native to the Mediterranean region. Cuba’s Spanish colonists introduced these leaves, and they have since been an essential component of the country’s most popular Cuban recipes — including black bean stew and slow-cooked braises.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is another popular spice from Central Asia. It’s one of the oldest known horticultural crops and is esteemed for its culinary and medicinal uses. It’s one of the most used spices in the Cuban culinary world, adding a depth of flavor to recipes such as mojo (a sauce that doubles as a marinade).
Meanwhile, oregano (Origanum vulgare) is also indigenous to the Mediterranean and West Asia. It’s in many meat dishes, such as Cuban pork tenderloin, salsa, and Cuban-style marinated steak.
Bay leaves are elliptical or oval-shaped leaves with a slender point. They are dark green and glossy when fresh and transform into brittle, olive-green ones when dried.
The garlic used in the culinary world refers to the flower bulb of the garlic plant. It has a white membranous skin that encloses the cloves. The cloves have a yellowish tinge.
Oregano leaves are small spade-shaped leaves that are bright or olive green when fresh. When the leaves are dried, their hue turns dark green or light brownish green.
Bay leaves, garlic, and oregano elevate the flavor of Cuban dishes. Bay leaves give recipes a woody and slightly bitter taste, while oregano leaves deliver a woody, minty, and camphoraceous hint. The latter’s complex flavor also packs some subtle sweetness and notes of bitterness and pepperiness.
|Origin||From the laurel tree (Lauris nobilis), native to the Mediterranean region||Bulbs of the garlic plant (Allium sativum); native to Central Asia||From the oregano plant (Origanum vulgare), native to the Mediterranean and West Asia|
|Appearance||Fresh leaves are dark green and glossy; when they become dry, they become brittle and olive green in color||Yellowish cloves enclosed in a white membranous skin||Fresh spade-shaped leaves are bright or olive green; dried ones are dark or light brownish green|
|Flavor||Woody and bitter with a herbal scent similar to oregano and thyme||Sweet, buttery, and nutty when cooked; pungent when raw||Woody, minty, and camphoraceous|
|Applications||Slow-cook braises and stews||Sauces like mojo and sofrito||Meat dishes such as Cuban-style steak and pork loin|
|Shelf Life||Fresh: 1 to 2 weeks, dried: up to 6 months in a cool, dry cupboard; 3 to 4 years in the freezer||Fresh garlic lasts 4 to 6 months, while granulated and powdered garlic last up to 3 years||Up to 2 weeks when fresh and refrigerated and up to 3 years when dried and stored in a cool, dark area|
|Form||Fresh, dried, ground||Fresh, granulated (the dried form of minced garlic) powder||Fresh, dried oregano|
Sazon completa Seasoning – another popular spice
Sazon is a spice blend. It’s a complete Cuban seasoning, a mix of annatto, garlic powder, salt, onion powder, ground cumin, oregano, salt, coriander, black pepper, and monosodium glutamate or msg.
|Appearance||Bright orange powder|
|Flavor profile||Savory, garlicky, umami|
Sazon seasoning came from Puerto Rico, but the ingredients that make up this blend come from Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
It is present in various Latin American cooking, particularly chicken, pork, fish, ground beef, and steak dishes. It’s a key ingredient in the Cuban grilled chicken breast and Cuban arroz con pollo. You can also sprinkle it in soups, stews, and rice.
Though Sazon comprises many spices, annatto is responsible for its bright orange color.
This seasoning blend has a unique savory taste, offering a garlicky flavor and a strong dose of umami. Annatto, its major component, also gives it a mild peppery flavor.
Are Cuban spices hot?
Unlike its neighboring country and fellow former Spanish colony Mexico — whose Mexican cuisine is known to be spicy and hot, Cuba has foods that aren’t generally like that.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Cuban spice is the best for meats?
Sazon is a well-rounded spice mix used to season various types of meat — including poultry, beef, and fish. It’s the best spice for cooking with pork chops, loin, chicken thighs, and baby back ribs. Oregano is another spice that adds an interesting flavor to meat dishes.
What Cuban spice is the best for vegetables?
Garlic is a commonly used flavoring spice that enhances the flavor of many dishes, including those that spotlight vegetables. It can also be used to make salad dressing, marinades, sauces, and vinaigrettes.
What Cuban spice is the best for soups?
Cuban soups and stews typically have bay leaves, giving the final output that herbal and slightly floral appeal. It also adds notes of bitterness that fare well with heavy soup recipes.